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You say potato, they say potatoes

Couple finds wood chips way to nourish the earth, family farm

By Cindy Brown
For The Taos News
Posted 9/11/18

Regenerative agriculture is an approach to farming that enriches the soil rather than depleting it.

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Home & Garden

You say potato, they say potatoes

Couple finds wood chips way to nourish the earth, family farm

Posted

Regenerative agriculture is an approach to farming that enriches the soil rather than depleting it.

Although some regenerative techniques have long been used, interest is resurging in ways to work with the soil to make it more fertile while producing healthier food and reducing climate impact.

Local farmers Chris Pieper and Elana Lombard are pioneering some of these techniques at their small 2-acre farm near Arroyo Seco, using regenerative agriculture as a way to heal our relationship to the earth, restore soil health, support natural biodiversity and help the soil retain moisture.

Regenerative techniques in practice

Pieper and Lombard raise goats, geese and chickens and grow onions, garlic, carrots, corn, kale and beans. They have always tried to do so in an environmentally sensitive way, using wood chips around trees, flower and herb beds to moderate soil temperatures and create environments rich with microbes and worms. But this year, they tried something different: raising potatoes in wood chips. "In all our crops, we try to replenish the soil as much as possible, but the potato patch is the big experiment," says Pieper.

For three years, he prepared an area of about 600 square feet by adding layers of wood chips and manure from the goats. He periodically watered the patch and could see that the soil stayed wet and increasingly attracted worms. The soil is now rich, dark and loamy rather than hard and dry with a layer of clay caliche as it was before.

This past May, he planted the patch with cut up potatoes from Daniel Carmona's Cerro Vista Farm. Following a no-till method, he disturbed the soil as little as possible and added more layers of wood chips and manure. "As wood chips break down, they become part of the soil, which is then rich with worms and microorganisms. From my research, what I've found is that we want to encourage the natural biology of the soil. It is not about the additives; it is about how healthy the ecology of the soil is," says Pieper. "I try not to disturb the new soil made by wood chips and manure. It attracts red worms that like decomposed material. The worms aerate the dirt, and their castings build better soil. With these methods, the soil retains more water and carbon, and therefore, less carbon dioxide is released into the air."

Even though the soil was well-prepared and the method well-researched, the summer was not without challenges. Gophers found the potatoes and have eaten some of the crop. "During this dry summer, the gophers didn't have food, so I put up with them eating some potatoes," says Pieper.

Still, the first year of growing has been a success. He started harvesting at the end of August, digging up potatoes as the plants above ground start to wither. He expects to harvest more than 400 pounds of Yukon Gold potatoes this year. "We've never been able to grow super successful potatoes, but this method has been amazing," says Pieper. Digging into the soil, he demonstrates how easy it is to harvest the potatoes from the soft, nutrient-rich ground and points out it is a good harvest, especially for such a dry year.

Influences

Pieper's father always had a garden and now Pieper has come to appreciate how much work it is to grow food. Pieper credits several people as being big influences on his approach to farming. "Roberto Chavez and I were colleagues at Taos High. I taught earth science and algebra, and Roberto was the science chair and taught chemistry and physics," says Pieper. "He and his wife Teofista, a University of New Mexico Spanish teacher, raised three children and managed to grow most of their food on their 30-acre farm in Los Cordovas. They raised bees, chickens, lambs, pigs, and grew a large garden of vegetables. In addition to growing food, Teofista is an excellent cook. They both embodied sustainable local farming to Elana and I."

It was Martha Fielding of Just Kidding Farm, who inspired Pieper and Lombard to get goats, and his neighbors in Arroyo Seco have provided examples of excellence in farming. "My neighbor Melinda Bateman is a highly-skilled biodynamic farmer and has run Morningstar Farm for more than 20 years. Lee Varoz is also a neighbor and an excellent farmer. His apple orchard is the most beautiful I have ever seen," says Pieper.

Harvest and planting anew

As the potatoes are harvested, the family is finding creative ways to eat them. Breakfast potatoes with green chiles are a current favorite. After all of the potatoes are harvested this fall, Pieper will store the remaining potatoes in the well house. The potato patch will be covered with more wood chips and manure and left to rest over the winter. In the spring, Pieper will plant again, using his own potatoes as starts and getting started earlier in the season.

Love of farming

Pieper and Lombard have been in Taos for more than 20 years and have been farming here for 16 years. "Elana and I are a team on the farm," says Pieper. They are also the owners of Mudd N Flood Mountain Shop on Bent Street.

Their children Gwendolyn and Reed were born at home and grew up on the farm. Gwendolyn went to Cornell University in New York on a full scholarship and is now in France studying wine-making. Pieper credits Taos for helping her to succeed. "Coming from this community gave her the best education at school and at the farm," he says.

As Pieper looks ahead to the future of the farm, he observes, "The wood chip approach is the least energy intensive and most water efficient I have ever used to grow food. I think that this is the only way I want to farm now, by building soil not mining it. We can treat the soil like we treat our bodies, as total living systems." He explains that a tablespoon of healthy soil contains billions of organisms with 5,000 different species of bacteria. If we till the soil, we disturb the biological system and take it back to ground zero.

When asked what he loves about farming, Pieper answers thoughtfully, "It is connecting to the soil and to the food I eat. I love eating and celebrating food. It is all about our relationship to the earth and to each other. Farming is an antidote to the technological world we live in. It connects me to my ancestors; it is who we are."

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